For Fu-Tung Cheng - whose Berkeley, California-based firm Cheng Design is known internationally for its innovative design work in kitchens, bathrooms and custom homes - the use of concrete makes sense.

"The greatest designer, the hippest one out there, always coming up with new things and always evolving, is Mother Nature. We can't hope to imitate that, but we can hope to understand the process of design of nature and get inspired by that," explains Cheng.

And the use of concrete has served him well, garnering him numerous accolades and prestigious design awards, including being called one of the "World'sGreat Designers" for his kitchen in the Robb Report's 2003 Ultimate Home, "Designer of the Year" from the 2003 Gaganeau Stoves National Competition, and the "2001 Bath of the Year" award from Kitchen and Bath Business.

Not one to remain quiet about his craft, Cheng also strives to remove the mystery and expense that stands between the do-it-yourselfer and concrete. His book, "Design, Forms and Finishes For the Kitchen and Bath: Concrete Countertops," explains both how and why to use concrete in the home.

Cheng offers step-by-step directions through the process of making a concrete countertop - everything from building the mold and mixing and pouring concrete, to curing, grinding, polishing and installing the countertop.

Throughout the book, Cheng also offers valuable troubleshooting advice and useful tips on maintaining a concrete countertop.

The book, published by Taunton Press, is already in its fifth printing and has sold about 60,000 copies, all in its first year. The publisher, who originally projected sales at 15,000 in three years, has given Cheng the go-ahead for a second book revolving aroundCheng Design and showcasing all they have to offer, and then some. The book is set to release in Fall 2004.

As for why the book has gained such a following, Cheng reasons it has to do with boredom with the current products out there.

"The public is curious...they're tired of looking at the same stuff - the 'usual suspects'," he says.

"The book has a broad audience: architects, designers, home owners and concrete professionals. It looks good, it's timely, it's the only one on the subject, and it's not just another how-to book," Cheng adds.

Cheng Design is showing and teaching exciting new looks. It's all work born out of good design, which the public has taken to.

Customers have been sending in a steady stream of photos showcasing work they've done thanks to Cheng. They're coming out with fabulous work done at reasonable prices. Some contractors are even starting whole businesses around it.

But amidst the hoopla, Cheng's goal is simple: To have fun while doing creative work and harmonizing pleasing spaces that inspire people.

"It's like performing, and people are living in your performance," he says.

All of this success is amazing when you consider the fact that Cheng didn't set out for this to happen.

Growing up, Cheng was surrounded by art. His mother was a color artist at the Walt Disney Studios, and his three of his brothers are professional artists.

In 1975, Cheng purchased a home just north of Berkeley, California. Described as a "near-wreck," he rebuilt the house through experimentation and his innate artistic and design skills.

He founded Cheng Design in 1978, starting with residential renovationsand a staff including architects, designers and a fabrication crew.

In 1987 Cheng incorporated his consulting firm as Cheng Design and Construction. The company has since become known nationally for its sophisticated, understated look in design.

Spurred by a growing demand from both existing clients and the design community, the firm launched Cheng Design Products, Inc. in early 1998 to introduce the Cheng Design aesthetic to a broader market.

Cheng Products line includes a series of eight distinct kitchen hood designs, as well as modular kitchen and bathroom countertops made from a proprietary, light-weight concrete trademarked as Geocrete.

Cheng Products' marketing efforts are targeted toward a select segment of the interior design community: those designers who carry a high-end, design-savvy client base interested in unique and discerning products.

"I'm trying to hold up a standard of good design and getting people who are willing to pay the money to get this stuff. Our stuff is never about price...but it's worth the price," says Cheng.

Although Cheng admits he was immediately drawn to the virtues of concrete, he says," I didn't get into this as a business. It was just a natural evolution from design jobs."

The evolution has also spawned both the book launch and NeoMixConcrete Countertop Kits.

EachNeoMix kit is custom-assembled with the necessary materials tocreate an individual's specific project. By using the NeoMix System Calculator, a custom kit is assembled.

The NeoMix System includes books, instructional videos and hands-on workshop courses to help novices, professionals and those in between fully realize the potential existing bothwithin themselves and in concrete.

The process is described in a step-by-step manual as well as an in-depth 70-minute instructional video, both of which cover mold making, mixing and pouring, releasing the countertop from the mold, grinding, finishing and maintenance.

When the kits first launched, they were prepackaged, so users had to figure out how many kits to buy to finish their particular project, and any leftovers were wasted.

"It became readily apparent that we couldn't just sell the kits prepackaged. Now we offer a calculator to calculate the size of projects and send customized kits so there's no paying for stuff you don't use," says Cheng.

In an effort to help contractors, the website will launch a new member's section in July 2003 that will offer special deals for contractors so they won't get undercut by do-it-yourself home owners.

Contractors can also become a part of Cheng exchange so they don't have to stock anything. By using the calculator, theycan quickly know exactly what the piece will cost to make and price it to the consumer accordingly.

"We train contractors and help them get involved with NeoMix as a vehicle to reach clients. We have a reputation because of the book, and contractors want to use thatreputation as a means to reach potential clients," explains Cheng.

TheNeoMix one-day workshops, formerly offered only once a month, are now available twice a month due to demand.

The eight-hour course leaves students with the ability to build compelling forms, create the proper mix design, and pour, cure, finish and polish a professional-grade concrete countertop.

They'reattended mostly by concrete professionals including outdoor contractors, but also include some do-it-yourselfers, designers and architects. Although some home owners have attended, they tend to turn to the video and book to learn.

Cheng sayssome students have taken courses with other people, but now they're coming to the source of the most creative stuff, and his goal is to engage them in the design process.

And if he happened to pass on some of his awe for Mother Nature along the way - even better.

Visit Cheng Design's web site

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